As early as next year, Houston could have a rough outline for the first highway park in the United States.
The Texas Department of Transportation is getting ready to reroute I-45 east of downtown, abandoning the two-mile Pierce Elevated expressway that wraps around the south and west sides of the central business district. Since 2014, some local visionaries have pushed a bold idea to turn the decommissioned freeway into a massive public space.
It’s been two years since the Pierce Skypark captured the imaginations of Houstonians, spawning enthusiastic op-eds and an online following. And while I-45 is in the news again, after the Texas Transportation Commission earmarked another $8.9 billion for statewide highway improvement projects in May, media attention on the Skypark has largely fizzled.
But three of the main people behind the Skypark tell Houston Press the dream is alive and well. Turning a freeway into — well, not a freeway — requires a lot of time, plans, investors and meetings, they say. Their goal is for Houston to have an economic study of the project by sometime in 2018.
On a recent afternoon, the trio invited the Press to their airy downtown offices to hear a progress report. All three of them are members of Page, a Texas architecture firm. Tami Merrick handles planning and community outreach for the project. Marcus Martinez hand-draws renderings of the Skypark and irons out design issues. And John Cryer, the former CEO of Page, deals with the Skypark's business and economic aspects.
The team haven’t yet figured out a cost estimate for the Skypark and admit they have lots of work left. The trio have intentionally left their plans open-ended, they say, so that they can incorporate ideas for residents or city and state officials.
Still, they’re feeling optimistic. At some point the Pierce Elevated will stop serving cars. And when it does, the group argues, why wouldn’t the city want an innovative, prearranged plan for the abandoned stretch of freeway?
“You can’t just wait until the day that TxDOT asks you what to do with it,” Merrick said.
That day could be more than a decade away. Before Houston can even consider a sky park, TxDOT needs to build new roads for the cars currently using Pierce Elevated. The agency hopes to start on that project in around five to ten years. But that’s a loose estimate that depends on a lot of factors, especially whether there’s money for the project, said Danny Perez, a spokesman for TxDOT’s Houston District.
“There’s no funding,” he said, but said to stay tuned. "These things can move fast.”
Until TxDOT sets up an official schedule for the I-45 reroute, Perez is hesitant to make predictions on the future of Pierce Elevated. “It’s just so preliminary,” he said. “Anything can happen.” Although the city would get first dibs on any sale, Perez said selling the land “would probably be the ideal situation” for TxDOT. He wasn’t sure what the asking price would be. And he acknowledges that other options — like a land trade or a partnership between Houston and TxDOT — are also possibilities.
Back in 2015, when TxDOT first floated its I-45 rerouting project, the agency said it planned to raze the Pierce Elevated — which would make a highway park impossible. Was that still the agency’s intention? Again, Perez equivocated; TxDOT wouldn’t decide for sure until it knew what the city wanted to do, he said.
“We’re not in the business of building parks,” he added, describing the agency’s approach to the Pierce Skypark as “baby steps.”
The long and indefinite timeline makes it hard to forecast the viability of Pierce Skypark. If TxDOT offered to sell the defunct stretch of I-45 to Houston, the decision of whether or not to buy would ultimately be up to the mayor. And while Sylvester Turner has seemed warm toward the Skypark idea — in 2015, he visited the Page offices — he probably won’t still be mayor when the Pierce Elevated finally closes.
In the meantime, the architects and designers at Page are working on what they call “proof of concept.” If the idea of turning a highway into a public space sounds ambitious, the Skypark team want to prove that it’s not only possible but feasible.
As an analogy, they point to the High Line, which was once seen as an unrealistic and expensive dream. New York City spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project, bringing in funds from tax dollars, nonprofits and public-private partnerships. But when it was done, revenue from tourism, leases and air rights began flowing in. (Air rights come into play when a private developer purchases the right to extend its building over the airspace of a public landmark, even by just a few feet.) In 2011 — just two years after the High Line opened — Robert Hammond, one of the minds behind the project, estimated it had already made the city about $500 million.
For Martinez, the one who handles design issues, the High Line also offers a lesson in patience.
It took a decade — from 1999 to 2009 — for the High Line to go from vision to reality. He showed a chart comparing the timelines of similar projects around the world. The Pierce Skypark’s tiny line represented just three years of planning. On the scale of urban infrastructure, it was still an infant.
Founded in 1898, Page is one of the oldest architectural firms in Texas. The company has been at the forefront of some of Houston’s most ambitious renovation projects. It helped create Discovery Green in the mid-2000s. More recently, it also redesigned and renovated aspects of Buffalo Bayou Park, including the Cistern.
Pierce Skypark is the brainchild of Merrick, one of the Page architects. A resident of First Ward, Merrick occupies an unusual dual role as an urban designer and a community activist. Her initial idea, she said, was to use the soon-to-be-decommissioned stretch of I-45 to connect Buffalo Bayou bike paths with ones along White Oak Bayou and Stude Park. The idea grew more ambitious as more designers got involved.
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The team viewed implementation of the Skypark as a slow and steady process. As soon as the Pierce Elevated closes, for example, Cryer suggests that the city allow cyclists in. As they bike by the skyline, he said, maybe they would realize the pleasures of using a highway like a park. And then maybe even more investments would flow in.
The other ideas floated by the team during the presentation included a soccer field, a nature preserve, a water-retention pond and a location for art-car parades. The underside of the freeway would have space for public services like elementary schools or mixed-income housing.
Near the end of the presentation, Merrick asked a rhetorical question: What if Houston, perhaps the ultimate symbol of car culture in the United States, took a freeway away from cars? What if they made it a place where people could bike, walk, work or play?
“That could be such an amazing statement about the future of the city,” she concluded.